Bittu was watching net practice in the Shivaji stadium in Nagpur. He was a thirteen-year-old orphan who lived with his brother Jayant, in a slum behind the stadium. Jayant, who was seven years older to Bittu worked as a caretaker in the Stadium.
Bittu, a class eight student of Government High School was crazy about cricket. He was tall for his age, wiry and quick on his feet. He was a left arm pace bowler and a right-handed batsman. In his school there was no scope for playing. The school neither had the kit nor the grounds where the kids could play. Jayant had given Bittu an old bat, which had become his lifeline. Bittu and his friends had made an abandoned park close to the slum their playground. Wickets had been drawn on the trunk of a neem tree with chalk. A cricket ball had been orgnaised by Bittu’s friend Raunaq. And with these meagre resources Bittu and his team played daily.
One day Bittu went to the stadium and saw around twenty kids practising. Three kids around Bittu’s age were bowling to another youngster who was batting with a net that covered him on three sides. There was a middle aged man standing close by shouting instructions. He was was of medium height and build with a tanned face and a thick moustache.
“Why are the kids playing like this?” asked Bittu.
“This is called net practice Bittu. Anyone who wants to achieve anything in the field of cricket has to spend hours and hours in net practice. You see that fellow out there,” Jayant said pointing to the man who was shouting instructions.
“Yes, who is he. He seems to be the boss here.”
“He is Randhir Mehta, the coach of our city’s best school – Daffodils Public School or DPS. He is conducting a coaching camp.”
“Is it only for the students of DSP or anyone can attend?”
“This particular coaching camp is open for all schools. But Mehta is very choosy,” Jayant replied.
“Bhai, can I stay back and watch?”
“Sure, as long as you don’t disturb them.”
Bittu watched fascinated the kids playing. A few of them were very good – particularly a leg spinner who was getting a phenomenal turn. Most of the others were quite ordinary. Bittu was sure he could play better.
Bittu’s school was closed in the afternoon and he started coming to the stadium to watch the kids practise. The more he saw Mehta the more he started admiring his finesse. He was very sharp in catching the slightest of flaws in technique and equally adept at suggesting corrective action.
One evening the kids were practising and Mehta was standing to one side watching the kids practise. Bittu gathered courage and went up to him.
“Sir, namaste, ” Bittu said his heart pounding.
“Yes?” Mehta turned his gaze on him.
Bittu immediately felt conscious of his shirt, which had once been white but was now a dirty shade of cream, his shorts that had two patches and the slippers on his feet.
“I…I…was thinking.. can I…request you……,” Bittu started and then gathering courage blurted out, “Sir, I also play cricket quite well. I am a left arm pace bowler and right-handed batsman. Sir, can I join this coaching camp?”
Mehta’s eyes travelled slowly down Bittu’s body – taking in the dirty shirt, the patchy shorts and the slippers.
“So you want to join this camp is it?” He turned and yelled, “Baldev, come here.”
A tall stocky boy, probably a year older to Bittu came running.
“Baldev, this young gentleman here wants to join our coaching camp. What do you say?”
Baldev stared at Bittu for a few seconds and then looked at Mehta. Then they both burst out laughing.
Mehta’s lips curled into a contemptuous smile. “Do you know how much each of the players shells out for this camp?”
“Six thousand bucks for two months. The kit is also our own. And coach insists on nothing but the best,” Baldev answered.
“Young man, this is a coaching camp not a relief camp. Get lost and I don’t ever want to see you in this stadium.”
Bittu turned and walked back fighting back the tears of shame. A boy growing up in the slums is used to abuses and insults. But this kind of humiliation Bittu had never faced before.
That night when Jayant came home he found Bittu sitting in one corner his face drawn and his eyes red. After a lot of persuasion Bittu told his brother about his encounter with Mehta.
Jayant heard the whole thing quietly but did not say a word.
The next day Jayant asked Bittu, “How keen are you about playing cricket?”
“Bhai, you know how crazy I am about the game.”
“There is going to be a selection trial around eight-nine weeks from now. The selected players will form a team that will later take on DPS – which won the inter-school championship in January this year. From tomorrow your coaching will start and I think in six weeks you should be good enough make it to the team.
“B…but bhai who will coach me?”
“You! But I didn’t even know you could play cricket.”
“When father and mother were alive and I was studying in class eight I had been selected to represent Nagpur Schools. I even played one tournament. Then our parents passed away and our world came crumbling down. I had to give up everything and concentrate on our survival.”
Bittu looked at his brother with renewed respect.
The practise started early next morning in real earnest. The practise ground was the ‘park’. Bittu learnt that his brother too had been a left arm pace bowler. He had however concentrated only on bowling while Bittu fancied himself as an all rounder.
As the sessions progressed Bittu found that Jayant was a tough taskmaster. He was relentless in his pursuit of perfection. He would make Bittu bowl on and on at the tree trunk till he was satisfied at the incremental improvement. Total satisfaction of course seemed almost impossible. At the end of the session, bone tired when Bittu would ask Jayant, “Bhai, how was it? I think I did much better didn’t I?”
“There is a marginal improvement, but you still have a long way to go. Do you see the way your arm is coming down? With that kind of an action it will be difficult for you to be really accurate and effective.”
Bittu would simply curse himself for asking and plod on. Every morning from six to eight, they had a practise session and on Sunday two sessions of two hours each. Much to Bittu’s delight Jayant managed to get a complete cricket kit for him. Jayant would now keep just one stump on the ground and ask Bittu to bowl.
One Sunday Jayant threw a challenge.
“You have to bowl ten deliveries at this lone stump. If ten out of ten balls hit the target I’ll accept that you are now ready for the selection trials and treat you to chicken biryani.”
Bittu grabbed the bowl and started on his run up. First six balls were on the target but the seventh missed the wicket.
“Start again,” Jayant commanded.
This time first eight balls hit the wicket, the ninth was off target and Bittu had to start from scratch. This exercise went on and on for two hours but Bittu just couldn’t bowl all ten on target.
By the end of the session he was on the verge of collapse.
“It’s impossible to be this accurate,” Bittu said looking at his brother.
“No it’s not, It just needs concentration and discipline. You have to first concentrate on the immediate goal- hitting the wicket. What you are thinking about are the larger goals- the selection trial – you making it to the team – you doing well and lots more . My dear kid brother, the bigger picture should be kept in mind but not at the cost of the immediate target. What you have to aim right now is to get ten deliveries bang on target. That’s all. All the other goals will follow.”
“Let’s see you do it,” Bittu said a picture of sullen defiance.
Jayant looked at him for a few seconds and then said, “Okay.”
Bittu watched him take the run up. He came at a speed faster than Bittu and with a strong, fluid action bowled. The ball crashed into the wicket sending it cart-wheeling. As Bittu watched open-mouthed Jayant bowled the next nine deliveries bang on spot. After the tenth ball had shattered the lone stump Bittu ran forward and hugged his brother.
“I’m sorry bhai. You are fantastic.”
“You too can be fantastic Bittu and I’m sure you will be.”
In the evening session Bittu took the ball. This time he bowled ten deliveries and all ten hit the lone stump much to the delight of his brother.
As the training progressed Jayant discussed with Bittu the nuances of the other aspects of the game.
“As far as batting is concerned I can’t tell you much. All I can say is that I’ve seen you bat and you have a flair. Just play you natural game and I’m sure you’ll be able to make useful contributions. Fielding is as important as batting and bowling. If you’re an agile fielder and a sharp catcher your value will be enhanced to a great extent.”
Jayant put Bittu to some vigorous catching and fielding practice.
Two months after Bittu’s practice had started the date for the selection trials was announced.
“Bittu, the trials are in the stadium exactly ten days from today. A selection committee comprising five persons will be there to choose a fourteen-member team, which will be named the ‘Challenge Eleven’. The selection will be spread over two days. They will watch you guys practice at the nets. There’ll also be a friendly cricket match between the aspirants who’ll be divided into two teams.”
Bittu and Jayant worked very hard for the next two weeks and on the day the selection trials commenced Bittu was much calmer than he thought he would be.
At the nets Bittu got quite a few chances to bowl and very soon he had established himself as the most lethal bowler. Very few batsmen were able to stand up to him. Not only was he generating quite a bit of pace he was accurate too with his yorkers more often than not crashing into the stumps. On the second day a match was held between the players who were divided into Sunny’s Eleven and Dev’s Devils.
Bittu played for Dev’s devils and scalped four victims conceding just 13 runs in 6 overs. His team won and he made it to the Challenge Eleven.
Jayant was delighted. “Bittu, this is only the beginning. The real challenge is help your team beat DPS which is a truly formidable team.”
The match between DPS and Challenge Eleven was scheduled a month later. The Challenge Eleven players were given the Shivaji Stadium nets to practise. Bittu enjoyed playing with his team members. He found none of them seemed concerned with his background or his lack of elite education. They admired his bowling and fielding abilities and nothing else seemed to matter.
The match was being played in DPS grounds. The Challenge Eleven won the toss and elected to bat. It was a thirty over match and they put up a good score of 163 for five in the allotted overs. Bittu who was to come seven down did not get a chance to bat.
DPS started cautiously. They played out the opening bowlers Suresh and Ahmed. At the ten over stage DPS was 61 for one – firmly on course.
Bittu was brought in first change. As he started his run up he looked at the pavilion for a second. He knew his brother would be there. He put in all that he had in the very first delivery. “No ball!” shouted the Umpire.
Bittu cursed himself and walked back. This time he was cautious. He held back a bit and bowled. What he thought would be a yorker was converted to a half volley by the batsman and lifted over his head for a clean six.
The home crowd was in raptures. Bittu was now rattled. He decided to bowl the fastest ball he had ever bowled. The result was – an increase in speed, but at the cost of accuracy. The ball pitched outside the off-stump and veered away.
“Wide,” the Umpire called.
The rest of the over he yielded eight more runs. Bittu’s one over had cost is side 16 runs. He was removed from the attack and the spinners were brought on from both ends. They checked the run- rate and managed to get a few break-throughs.
At one stage DPS needed 8 runs to win in 2 overs with 3 wickets in hand. The match seemed to have already slipped away from Challenge Eleven’s hands and whatever slender hope they had was snuffed out with an injury to their ace bowler Ahmad. He had been kept for the slog overs but he twisted his ankle while fielding at mid-wicket. He had to leave the field. The spinners had exhausted their quota and Suresh had only one over left.
Hussain the captain of the team handed the ball to Bittu. “Don’t try anything sensational. Just bowl wicket to wicket and try to restrict them as much as possible. As Bittu walked back he knew this was his last chance. However he didn’t agree with Hussain’s advice. At this stage defence was not the option. He and Suresh both had to attack – they would never be able to defend a paltry target of 8 runs. Defeat was anyway staring them in the face. It was better to attack, take a chance and go down fighting rather than tamely concede the match. He came in with his usual burst of speed and bowled a yorker. The batsman facing him was Baldev, quite set on a well-made 52. He stepped out to hoist him over long on. Suddenly he heard a sound, which every batsman dreads. With a churning feeling in his stomach he turned back. The middle stump was cart- wheeling towards the wicket keeper.
There was complete silence in the stadium. Bittu and his team did high fives.
The equation was still very much in DPS’ favour. The new batsman was the pace bowler Puneet. This time Bittu decided to bowl a slower one. Puneet cracked it back to the bolwer and the ball came low and fast. Bittu who was in his follow through dived and picked up the catch inches from the ground. It was a spectacular catch and even the home crowd generously applauded. Now only the last wicket remained. The Challengers huddled together.
“Let’s not get carried away. Bittu, you have been doing a fantastic job so far in this over. Don’t try anything ambitious now.”
The new batsman was Jadhav, the off-spinner. He nudged Bittu’s ball to gully and scampered off for a single thus denying Bittu a dream hat trick. The batsman who had crossed over was Peter, a right arm pace bowler and an adept batsman. Bittu, bowled an out-swinger but in his attempt to bowl a quick one, once again he ended up giving too much width. Peter stepped back and smashed it through covers for four.
The home crowd was once again ecstatic. 3 runs to win, one wicket in hand and eight balls to go. Bittu knew he had to once again gamble. He decided to bowl a special delivery, which Jayant had taught him. It was an out- swinger, which instead of swinging away would straighten at the last minute.
As he turned and ran Bittu kept praying. It was a perfect delivery it pitched right on spot and instead of veering away went straight. Peter, expecting a normal out-swinger, had already moved into position for a square cut. He flashed. The ball, straightened ever so slightly, missed the bat and crashed into the stumps. After that there was complete pandemonium. Bittu’s teammates fell on him, screaming, shouting and yelling.
Later, Bittu was adjudged the man of the match. In his acceptance speech Bittu thanked his brother and coach Jayant. Then he paused and looking straight at Randhir Mehta said, “I would also like to add a special word of thanks to one of the gentlemen present here. But for his humiliation and insult I would not have had the will to win and my brother the determination to make me succeed.”
As he walked back he found Randhir Mehta’s face turning red and his brother Jayant’s eyes shining with pride and happiness.